Beauty in Nature is Valuable

If we manage to grow older in comfort, it becomes easier to set aside many of life’s demands that were pressing earlier in our lives. That may not only make it possible to think deeply about what makes beauty valuable but also it may be an obligation for us as elders.

Clearly there is more than one answer – – probably several. So this attempt includes more than one point of view. “Hard science” has conventionally opted out of such questions because the discussion “is subjective”. Perhaps what that really means is that it is no place for young ambitious scientists because it would risk reputations. An alternative hypothesis is that it is a very complex multivariate issue and, lacking insight into those many variables and their interactions, scientists see larger research grants from other proposals. Yet those same scientists attempt exact explanations of the complex of interacting processes involved in the transformation of freshly fallen leaf litter into soil organic matter.

If we use different criteria for valuing beauty, understanding what makes beauty valuable could be an extremely important question to answer at the current stage of global dynamics. Perhaps stating the question conversely as “what would destroy beauty if it were removed?” clarifies the need to address the issue. First nations are said to have articulated it as “only when the last tree has been cut and the last river has been poisoned will we see their true value”.

Clearly the situation has changed since that time. When I was a child, the global population was barely greater than one billion. Now we approach seven and glibly discuss going to thirteen or even to twenty. The existence of and the ingredients of beauty surely have been affected and if we value it, planning to conserve beauty is essential.

Although it is seldom mentioned, beauty may be a strong influence in many “green” propositions and arguments. As a component in environmental arguments it may have been considered “unscientific” and low in power. Possibly it also was simply too difficult to articulate. Occasionally authors reach for Greek philosophical strength and use synonyms: “aesthetics” and aesthetic value.

Often we look for beauty in the whole landscape. A mantle of reds, golds and magentas quilted over the hills is classical autumnal landscape beauty. Together e see the colours, the pattern of those colours and their texture but we may register only a beautiful landscape scene

Beauty is at many scales. Within that landscape view, here on the Canadian Shield where we live, a primary component of the beauty is in water. Particularly in water that is part of a mosaic. Lakes and streams embedded in a terrestrial network. Without that water, the beauty of the landscape would be decimated. Within that watery element the beauty is evident over a wide range of contexts. Wind-driven ripples on the expanse of a lake, especially if viewed from down low, close to the water’s surface, have their own dynamic beauty. Stream flow or wind-ripples have a similar power. As the water flows steeply down off the Canadian Shield it displays another kind of beauty for some – whitewater. At a larger scale, the contrast between water and land along a shoreline brings a stilled texture that replaces the dynamics of flowing and blowing water.

A great expanse is not necessary for water to be beautiful. A trickle down over a shoreline carries much of the fascination of a greater waterfall. Ask a small child. The dynamic beauty of water is as much present in one raindrop hitting a flat surface as is any whitewater rapid. Frozen by a strobe light, the explosion of a drop’s impact has virtually unlimited dynamic beauty.

Sky also is a universal element of landscape beauty. Like water, sky beauty also is dynamic. Over the days clear blue can transform into many cloud shapes. If cumulus builds, the beauty puffs, rises and billows before the eye. At day’s end not only the shapes but even the light’s spectrum moves through almost limitless arrays before the final painting until morning glow renews the display.

Particularly on the Canadian Shield, the earth’s rocky foundation is almost universally an element of beauty in most views.

A rocky cliff may have beauty of its own but commonly, the rocks add to the beauty of a scene by enhancing the beauty of water and vegetation (or snow and ice). The beauty added by the rocks depends on shapes, contrasting textures, colours and, often, intimate combinations with vegetation such as lichen and algal colonies creating a mosaic on the rocks’ surfaces.

That gets us to the last major element of beauty in Nature – – living things. The beauty of living things and the way they affect the human spirit is clear from a simple example – – houseplants. For many humans there is a vital need to relate to living things. At the minimum, many humans need to relate daily to living plants. The magnitude of beauty in Nature and the effects on viewers is multiplied many-fold by the biodiversity of our semi-natural environments and by the seasonal dynamics of that biodiversity. Approximate experiments show effects on the human spirit from “walks in the forest” and effects on the psyche of the young from time spent in natural surroundings. It is reasonable to ascribe such effects to Natural beauty.

It seems clear that beauty in nature is certainly valuable. If so, shouldn’t we investigate how to value that beauty and use that knowledge in planning our future?







1 comment to Beauty in Nature is Valuable

  • The urban dwellers’ desire to live close to the beauty of the natural environment is an important motivator for me to tap into in my work at Ecology Ottawa.
    Our volunteers and supporters know or at least have a sense that a healthy urban canopy is a great component of their neighbourhood. We may cite all the benefits; increased biodiversity, cooling capacity for your home or street, storm water retention, and so on – but ultimately residents love their trees. They find them beautiful. They find them breathtaking. They find them calming when they turn to walk down their street under the canopy.

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